The debate over whether prison inmates should work to pull some of their own weight may be as old as prisons, themselves. Housing prisoners is expensive, so prison industries were started in part to recoup some of that cost. Inmate laborers make everything from blue jeans to Mardi Gras beads. And in some states, they might also work down on the farm – the prison farm, that is. In five Great Lakes states (MI, IL, OH, IN, WI) prisoners can be found raising dairy cows, produce, pork, and more. In the first of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson visits one such operation and has this report:
The debate over whether prison inmates should work to pull
some of their own weight may be as old as prisons, themselves.
Housing prisoners is expensive, so prison industries were
started in part to recoup some of that cost. Inmate
laborers make everything from blue jeans to Mardi-gras
beads. And in some states, they might also work down on the
farm – the prison farm, that is.
In five Great Lakes states (Mi, Il, Oh, In, Wi) prisoners can be
found raising dairy cows, produce, pork, and more.
In the first of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Wendy Nelson visits one such operation and has
Near the shores of Lake Superior, in Michigan’s Upper
Peninsula, sits the Marquette Branch Prison.
It’s secured by high concrete walls, razor-ribbon wire, and
Eight gun towers, manned twenty-four-hours a day.
There are about a thousand residents here, and the prison
just got another new arrival.
“We number ’em with a yellow tag, oh-sixteen-seventy-
But oh-sixteen-seventy-one won’t be living in a cell, or
wearing a prison uniform.
That’s because he’s not an inmate.
He’s a new-born calf – the latest addition to the prison’s
Kurt Tuimala oversees the prison’s sixty-four head dairy
operation, housed not far outside the prison fence.
He says it’s pretty much like any other dairy, with one
notable exception – all the workers are prisoners.
They’re assigned jobs like feeder, milker and herdsman.
But Tuimala says they all start out as barnsmen.
(Shovel scrapes cement)
…the guys who clean up after the cows.
(Shoveling up and under)
“Well, they’re not too happy about it, in general, you
know. And it’s the lower wage of the jobs here. But you
know everybody has to start at the bottom, and if they
prove themselves, they move up.”
The Michigan Department of Corrections doesn’t allow
recorded interviews with inmates at the prison.
But prison farm managers say most of the inmates enjoy
farm work. And according to prisoner advocacy groups in
Michigan and Ohio, no inmate complaints have been registered
about the jobs.
(Begin fading out barn sound)
In addition to the diary, there’s also a cattle operation, and
crops are grown to feed the animals. In all, the farm
provides jobs for about fifty minimum-security prisoners.
Michigan Department of Corrections director Bill Martin
says it costs anywhere between $2.15 and $2.40 per day to
feed each of the state’s forty-five thousand inmates.
He says if a cost-effective way can be found for prisoners to
raise more of their own food, the overall cost of feeding
them could be significantly reduced.
“If we can reduce those costs by, say, thirty-cents a
day, that’s millions of dollars so it’s a matter of looking at
what resources we’re given, how best to apply those, and
how do we keep the cost reduced for the taxpayer to
support a system as big as ours.”
Martin estimates the state could save about five-million
dollars a year by stepping up the number of farming
But not everyone’s convinced prison farms can really make a
significant impact for taxpayers.
Bruce Bickle teaches criminal justice at Grand Valley State
“Locking people up costs a lot of money – at thirty-
five, forty-thousand dollars a year, per. The prison
business is really driven, in many ways, by a lot of the public
perception, not the reality.”
But Bickle’s not against prison farms – in fact, he says
generally they’re good programs for keeping prisoners
(Fade in farm sound)
According to Marquette prison officials, about seventy-
percent of the inmates here come from Detroit and
surrounding areas. And farm superintendent Dan
Kolpack says for most, farming is a brand new experience.”
“They’ll walk in, and they’ll see me breeding a cow. Well,
my arm is right in the cow, and they gotta wonder what the
heck I’m doing in there!”
But by the time they’re ready to go free, Kolpack says most
of the inmates have enough experience to go to work on
farms, and a few have done just that.
But Kolpack says the idea really isn’t to train tomorrow’s
farmers. He says the prisoners can learn basic job skills
that they can use on a farm, or in a factory.
Still, critics say inmates should be given jobs that are more
John Cole-Vodicka is director of the prison and jail project
in Americus, Georgia, one of the more active prison farming
“Those are not the jobs that exist in most urban areas,
where most of our prisoner population comes from the
urban centers. While it might be nice to be outdoors
raising crops or tending to livestock is that really
serving the purpose it ought to?”
Marquette prison officials say the diary operation here is
now supplying milk to a total of ten Michigan prisons. And
soon, the diary will begin making ice cream.
The Marquette prison has a long history of farming – dating
back to the late 1800’s. But the farm is only now at a break-
even point with the cost of running the operation.
Even so, Michigan department of corrections director Bill
Martin thinks it’s worth exploring the idea of expanding
prison farms. To that end, he’s ordered feasibility studies at
all forty-two of the state’s prisons.
The results of those studies are expected by the end of this
Year, and depending on the results, the department of
corrections could break ground on new farms as
early as next spring.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Wendy Nelson in